When pressed as to why he so loves Karl Barth, Tom Marshfield, the protagonist of John Updike’s A Month of Sundays, replies in semi-aesthetic terms that “All I know is when I read Tillich and Bultmann I’m drowning. Reading Barth gives me air I can breathe.” I can agree with this statement, however much I am unable to agree with nearly everything else Marshfield says. Despite the supposed difficulty of Barth’s prose (a claim made mostly by people who have never really read him, in my experience), his theology soars where Tillich’s lags.
But since style is not a great reason to prefer one theologian over another, I will present two other, more legitimate, reasons I don’t care for Tillich, as much as I might admire him. Keep in mind that I have read only the first volume of his Systematic Theology—I may find something in the remaining two volumes to change my mind.
1) Tillich’s formulation of God as the Ground of All Being seems to exclude the possibility of His personality.
This is probably the most famous sound bite of Tillich’s theology, and we find it very early on in the Systematic Theology: “The object of theology is what concerns us ultimately,” and, taking it further, “Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or not-being.” I am sympathetic to this viewpoint; it has a great deal of poetry to it, and even some biblical backing. After all, God’s famous self declaration—“I am who I Am” (Exodus 3:14, NAS)—could be translated or interpreted as “I am I am,” that is, “I am Being itself.” I’m not a Hebrew scholar and thus can’t say if this formulation is linguistically acceptable, but it is poetically compelling, at least.
It makes sense on an existential level, as well. Augustine famously formulates sin as a void, as nothingness, as that which is not-God or not-good. Once Sartre comes into the picture, that which is not Nothingness is Being. Tillich claims that everything that is finite is threatened with nonbeing—this is where anxiety comes in. If God is not to be anxious, he must not be threatened with nonbeing, that is, He must be Being itself.
The problem comes when you attempt to apply God’s traditional characteristic of personality to His Tillichian status as Being. Tillich is in fact clear that God does not as such exist, that He transcends such words. When it comes to issues of personality, Tillich is frustratingly evasive, bringing the subject up before dismissing it without actually telling us what he thinks.
But logically (and it’s fair to proceed logically with Tillich, as we shall see in a moment), I don’t think you can hold to both God as existence itself and as a specific person, particularly not once Christ enters the picture. The traditional mystery of the Incarnation is that God now exists both everywhere and in one specific place—the divine substance is divided into two personalities but maintains its structural unity.
For Tillich, however, the Incarnation must result in something without personality somehow gaining it—God the Fabric of Existence implants its essence into Jesus of Nazareth. The differences between this and the orthodox view are striking and important, and Tillich’s deviation results in structural damage to the hypostatic union. Again, it’s hard to tell exactly what he believes on this topic, but when he says that “Jesus of Nazareth is the medium of the final revelation because he sacrifices himself completely to Jesus as the Christ” (1.136), it sounds an awful lot as though he’s suggesting that Jesus was all God and that He had to repudiate the human side of Himself.
The beautiful poetry of Tillich’s theology, then, can introduce some very serious problems that I don’t imagine most (relatively) conservative Christians are going to be willing to swallow.
2) Tillich attempts to bind God to reason.
I am not a complete fideist, but I do think the role of reason is in the final analysis limited in the Christian faith. Think of Dante’s Virgil, who represents (among many other things, no doubt) human reason and achievement—he’s able to bring our poet through Hell and Purgatory, but when time comes for Dante to actually enter into the divine presence, he has to jettison his guide and replace him with a new, heavenly one. The message is clear: Reason leads you to the cliff, but then you must make your own jump, receiving a higher reason in return.
That being said, I don’t think God is in any way bound to our conceptions of reason, any more than He is bound to our conceptions of time. I came under a great deal of fire from this at my religious college. The popular question in my philosophy classes was, “Can God make a square circle?” My answer: “Sure.” My interlocutor would then ask what one would look like, to which I could only reply: “How should I know?”
That’s because reason rules the roost in this universe. But God does not exist within the confines of this universe and so the possibility exists that He could operate outside the constraints of what we call reason. That we can’t imagine what this would look like makes no difference at all, since (a) we do live in this universe and thus within reason and (b) we can’t imagine an awful lot of things that we hold to be true, such as what eternity looks and feels like.
This sounds a bit like a masturbatory philosophical problem—and maybe it is, except that the split reveals something about the people on either side of it. To really believe that God is sovereign, to believe that nothing limits His freedom, is to believe that nothing is impossible for Him. A theology that attempts to contain God within reason—even to hold Him to the law of non-contradiction—seems to me too be a theology that at the very least de-emphasizes His sovereignty.
Tillich, feeding so much on traditional 19th-century liberal theology even as he reacts to it, makes just such a move. After the lengthy introduction to Systematic Theology, Tillich devotes the first chapter to what reason is and how it relates to Christian faith. He affirms the lower/higher reason split but goes even further, subjecting God to the laws of the universe at all times. (It is for this reason, too, that he disbelieves in miracles, renaming them signs and wonders and denying their supernatural elements.)
God must operate within reason because of reason’s role as logos. If God is, to beat a dead horse, the Ground of All Being, then He is Himself the logos of the world and thus cannot violate that logos, cannot go against Himself. This sounds all right, but upon closer inspection, it completely ties God to the world as the world—not only can we not have the hope of transcending it, neither can He. That’s disturbing to me.
So both of my problems come from Tillich’s most famous formulation, that of God as Being itself, and both come to some extent from a refusal to allow God to be both Being and a being. I’m wildly curious as to whether or not anyone reading this has come up with or heard of a way to make that happen. I love the poetry of Tillich’s idea—but I don’t like what appear to be its necessary consequences. I’ll stick with Barth for now.